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Feeling Stagnant During Covid

Why a sense of personal momentum matters.

Key points

  • Languishing during the pandemic leaves us feeling unmotivated and without emotional reserves.
  • When we can't feel a sense of accomplishment or momentum toward feeling better, we risk poor mental health.
  • Making some adjustments to our daily living can help us feel like we are gaining momentum toward feeling better.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
Source: Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

My inbox has been flooded with emails since publishing pieces on pandemic-related burnout, fatigue, and languishing. It seems that nearly everyone is being touched by one, or all, of these psychological states at this particular point in time.

We’re weary from making our way through endless numbers of groundhog’s days stacked one on top of the other and are having an impossible time imagining how we’ll navigate more of the same. We’ve come to the end of our proverbial rope(s).

As we’ve worked to stay healthy while living with the highly transmissible Omicron variant, we’ve returned to lives bereft of experiences that help us mark time or offer us opportunities that would set us on a trajectory of growth or fulfillment.

This hurts us today and makes us vulnerable tomorrow by depleting today of its joy and robbing us of a sense of forward movement beyond the moment we are in. With flagging energy and motivation, we find ourselves at risk of mental health concerns both now and in the future.

It seems, more and more that the isolated and “smaller world” reality of life during a pandemic might be interfering with our sense of momentum in regards to our mental health and personal thriving.

When we say that we are “gaining momentum” in other areas of our lives, we mean that we are feeling or witnessing accumulating progress toward a goal. Could it be that the repetitive and out-of-control nature of this point in time is robbing us of the important feeling of having agency over momentum in regards to our own lives and well-being?

There’s an old proverb that goes something like, “Keeping house is like stringing beads with no knot on the end of the string.” Could the same be said about living life during a pandemic?

Seeing progress toward a goal is a huge motivator to keep going. Witnessing an accumulation of “evidence” that one's efforts are leading them to a new space, awareness, ability, skill, etc., provides a sense of internal reward that serves as an inspiration to take the next step and the next one and the next one ad infinitum.

The trouble is that, in this time of limited access to meaningful external rewards and novel experiences, we are robbed of opportunities to experience the kind of momentum we are acculturated to valuing.

We love to say that we value being present, in the here and now, privileging each lived moment with an emphasis on being rather than doing. However, the reality is that we are all exhausted with being and have no idea how to measure momentum in regards to our mental health.

We are used to relying on tangible measures and accomplishments in marking movement toward a goal. When we can’t seem to maintain the outcomes of our efforts, we feel as though we’ve lost, or made no, momentum.

We go for a walk and get fresh air but, later, feel provoked to rage by a news story. We journal or talk with a therapist but find ourselves in the same emotionally exhausted state the next day spent in relative isolation. We work through a major disappointment only to find ourselves feeling emotionally distraught when the next one hits. We’re stringing experiential beads on our mental health necklace, but we feel the very real absence of a knot that would allow us the opportunity to feel/see/measure our progress.

To help us get through this current wave with our mental health and well-being intact, here are some small adjustments to make and actions to take.

1) Adjust your trajectory marker. In times of prolonged distress, it’s unrealistic to think that we’ll “accomplish” self-care in one fell swoop. If you’ve been thinking about a single self-compassionate action offering a sense of contentment for a week, consider moving that trajectory marker to a few hours or, at the most, 24 hours.

Treating each day as its own end goal will help you avoid feelings of failure and amass more realistic successes. Similarly, work to adjust your “success” meter to be trained on getting through this time with your emotional well-being intact rather than on accomplishing a happy state of being.

2) Have realistic self-care action items at the ready. Focus on small actions that result in a sense of well-being, calm, or groundedness and can be taken with relative ease. Breathing exercises, stretching routines, stepping outside to get fresh air, and moving your body in pleasurable ways for even a few minutes can all help.

This is not the time to depend on complicated workout routines or new meditation practices that require discipline. Simple actions taken routinely are the goal.

3) Aim for being emotionally regulated over being happy/fulfilled. Too often, we seek the emotional high of happy when simply feeling emotionally regulated would suffice. It may not be realistic to expect happiness or fulfillment in this time of near-constant disappointment and setbacks.

It is, however, possible to aim for emotional regulation in and of ourselves. When we are emotionally regulated, we experience a certain sense of flow. We feel capable of handling difficulties and have access to resilience.

We can trust that we will take care of ourselves even when things are difficult and act compassionately toward ourselves and others. We are responsive rather than reactive and can pause to determine what we need.

Our goal, right now, would best be set at this regulated state rather than in the dream of being happy. Practice taking a few deep breaths and assessing what would make you feel more grounded and calm.

Take action to arrive at that state. Work to value stillness and internal calm as much as you value external productivity. Reward yourself for privileging being overdoing at least some of the time.

4) Give yourself credit for the very real emotional weight inherent in day-to-day life during the pandemic. Click here, here, and here to understand the nature and impact of the psychological pressures humans are experiencing in this unique time.

5) Plan for, and take consistent mental health holidays. As we face a constantly moving finish line and all that comes with the unknown, it’s crucial that we plan times to be relatively stress-free. The specifics of these “stress holidays” will look different for everyone but would share the goal of detaching from news media or pandemic-related information.

For some of us, this may mean scheduling a one-hour block of time in which to turn off all notifications, listen to music, and sketch. For others, it might mean powering off all devices and reading an escapist novel.

Some people might schedule a phone call or visit with a friend, establishing the boundary that no pandemic topics will be addressed, while others might spend time immersed in nature.

The goal is to offer one’s self a break from bleak realities and direct one’s energy toward self care and emotional regulation.

More from Doreen Dodgen-Magee, Psy.D.
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